Saratoga County

Saratoga police embrace body cameras

Any courtroom defense Michael Cole might have mustered was undercut when prosecutors gave his attorn

Any courtroom defense Michael Cole might have mustered was undercut when prosecutors gave his attorney the footage taken as he fled police last winter.

The two-minute chase was captured on a remote camera activated by an alert officer in the passenger seat of a city police cruiser as it followed the 28-year-old man’s truck late on St. Patrick’s Day. The high-definition video showed Cole fleeing the police who had stopped him, then crashing and abandoning his truck before two officers captured him in a back yard on Catherine Street.

More important, the video showed both officers using proper protocol while engaging Cole and before subduing him with a Taser. The footage made the case an easy one for the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute.

“It was so strong, there wasn’t much room for him to go,” District Attorney-elect Karen Heggen said last week. “It showed each and every step the police made was in accordance with their policies and procedures.”

Less than two months later, Cole pleaded guilty to a slew of misdemeanor charges stemming from the arrest and was sentenced to serve two years in prison in August.

Meanwhile, videos captured by the 11 cameras now worn regularly by the Saratoga Springs Police Department continue to surface in criminal cases working their way through the court system.

“They are increasingly part of the case files we have,” Heggen said. The cameras have proved popular enough over their first 18 months in service that the city is spending $11,500 to buy six more cameras from Taser International, along with storage space to hold the video they capture. The department also is looking into purchasing on-board cameras for its fleet of cruisers sometime in the coming year.

Police Chief Greg Veitch said the on-officer cameras have proved invaluable in the collection of evidence. They’ve also helped resolve a handful of complaints against officers — some even before they are formally lodged.

“We’ve had instances where people have come in to file a complaint, they’ve been advised the incident is on video from an officer-worn camera and they walk away,” he said.

Some defense attorneys see police body cameras as a win-win prospect. E. Stewart Jones said the cameras make sense because they can remove all doubt about what happened during an incident.

“It protects the police and it protects the arrestee,” he said. “It removes any question about what happened.”

Saratoga Springs is the only Capital Region municipality to have its officers wearing body cameras. But others could follow suit.

Last week, Colonie police began testing out a camera to gauge its effectiveness. Lt. Robert Winn said with heightened sensitivity toward officer conduct and several high-profile national cases involving disputed police conduct, it’s only reasonable that the town look into outfitting its officers with the devices.

“In light of everything that’s going on, it’s something that we’re exploring,” he said. “We’d be remiss if we weren’t looking into it.”

Other departments are waiting to see how cameras work in Saratoga Springs and elsewhere before investing. Schenectady Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said the department mulled buying the cameras, but decided instead to upgrade the 30 dated dashboard camera systems mounted in its patrol cars.

For Schenectady, the issue came down to practicality, cost and questions over operation. Kilcullen said the $150,000 budgeted for upgrades seemed better spent modernizing a system the police have already found to be very effective.

“But we haven’t entirely discounted body cams at this point,” he said. “Certainly, there are benefits to having body cameras.”

The lightweight cameras worn on the officer’s uniform, glasses or hat are about three inches long and can record video and audio. The devices are constantly recording, but save only about 30 seconds of footage unless an officer activates them.

Paul Veitch, president of the Saratoga Springs Police Benevolent Association, said an initial hesitance by officers to wear the cameras has subsided. Officers now wear the cameras voluntarily, and they are especially popular on night shifts, when they can capture some of the difficult situations officers encounter.

“It’s a great way to document what we do on a regular basis,” said Veitch, head of the department’s road patrol, who regularly opts to use the camera himself. “More of the guys are interested in wearing them. More of the guys are wearing them.”

The cameras do come with issues. The department doesn’t have enough to outfit each shift — even with six more, the city won’t have enough for all the uniformed officers to wear one on duty at a given time.

Heggen said the increasing prevalence of video — whether from body cameras or fixed security surveillance cameras that now widely dot the landscape — creates a false sense that every event is captured somewhere. She said cameras should never be relied on to replace good investigative technique or a case based on solid evidence.

Also, the huge amount of data the body cameras capture creates another issue: what to do with it all., a storage division of Taser, will manage the data from Saratoga’s new units at a cost of about $7,000 over the next five years.

Veitch said the department needs to develop a policy to dispose of unnecessary footage. He said all of the footage taken by city officers is now being stored, even though some is no longer needed.

Data collection and how it is shared is also a concern for civil rights groups. Melanie Trimble, director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she’s taking a guarded approach to the cameras now being worn and the policies that govern them.

“We want clear and concise policies on the part of the department so that the public is protected,” she said. That includes guidance on when cameras are turned on, what footage is kept, how long it’s stored and whether it’s shared with other agencies before disposal.

Trimble said her chapter has yet to receive any complaints about the cameras in Saratoga Springs, but wouldn’t be surprised if one does eventually surface. “Right now, it’s wait and see,” she said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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